We speak to Lucy Inglis, about the artist behind her new book, Elsa Vaudrey: Life and Painting

So, Lucy, hi! What can fans of Elsa Vaudrey expect from this new book?

Hello! The book provides – for the first time – a complete overview of Elsa’s life and work, from her childhood in Glasgow, through her time living in Somerset, to her London days in Chelsea, Notting Hill and Holland Park. I think the most exciting aspect of the book for fans, however, is the number of colour reproductions of her work – over 160!

Elsa Vaudrey

Antibes II, 1961

Although a selection of Elsa’s later works have appeared in print, very few of the early pictures have been seen before. It is wonderful to see several of her ‘series’ paintings from the 1940s and 1950s – of the River Thames, London train stations, and the Fun Fair in Battersea Park – grouped together, revealing an element of her artistic practice not much known about. Mel Gooding’s essay on Elsa’s work helps to contextualise and explore both these earlier figurative paintings and the later abstracts, while the reflection written by her friend Raleigh Trevelyan gives an insight into Elsa as a person. Her friendships were incredibly important to her, and her relationships with other friends, for example the Polish painter Piotr Potworowski and the writer John Cowper Powys, are highlighted in the biographical section of the book.

Is there any unseen material?

A lot! In addition to the earlier paintings which are reproduced for the first time, there are several photographs taken from family albums. They are incredibly evocative and really help to bring the text to life.

Tell us a little about Elsa’s Bristol connection?

In the late 1930s, Elsa and her husband Peter Barker-Mill were looking for a house away from London. Elsa was reading at that time John Cowper Powys’ novel A Glastonbury Romance, several scenes in which are set in and around Wookey Hole, and lighted upon the idea of this area as a location for their new home. Driving through the West Country in search of a suitable property, they found one quite by chance, as Elsa later recalled:

“We went up the lane and got out of the car to pick primroses. The evening sun was setting on a house in the valley – we were on a little hill – and it had a Georgian front. And I said to Peter, ‘That’s the one.”

Elsa VaudreyWookey House, c. 1940

Although she would later move to live in London (following the end of her marriage to Peter) Elsa always retained incredibly fond memories of her time living in Somerset and, in many ways, she would always consider Wookey House her home. It was a special time in her life. Shortly after they moved to Wookey House, the Second World War broke out. Elsa and Peter invited into their home not only artists and writers looking to escape London but also a maternity home! Stonefield Maternity Home (where Elsa had given birth to her first two children) was based in Blackheath in south-east London; the bombs falling on the capital soon meant it was too dangerous to continue where it was so Dr Cyril Pink, who ran the home, accepted Elsa’s invitation to relocate to Wookey House. In addition to the mothers and newborn babies Dr Pink, a committed vegetarian, also brought with him a selection of interesting food items including nut butters and dried bananas.  

Elsa VaudreyElsa painting on Thames barge c. early 1950s

Which Somerset spots did she love most?

Elsa loved the Mendip Hills, walking up Ebbor Gorge to Ebbor Rocks, often coming home with armfuls of wild flowers. She was drawn to Wells Cathedral and painted several versions of its wonderful West front looking across the Cathedral Green, loving its cloister and moat, as well as the mediaeval striking clock with jousting horsemen. The family would also make trips to the Somerset Levels, to Glastonbury with its Abbey and Holy Thorn tree, and to Burnham-on-Sea (even though it was often muddy) to explore the sand dunes and the wide expanse of sandy beach at low tide.

Who was she influenced by? We read that she met Salvador Dali, is that right?

Yes, she did meet Salvador Dali. In the 1930s, she was a student at the London-based Grosvenor School of Modern Art. In 1935 she went with the School on a sketching trip to Tossa in Spain and met Dali whilst there. He was impressed by her work, and said of one painting “This has life!”. As an art student in London she was introduced to the work of artists such as Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse and to some extent they influenced her.

Her artistic vision, though, was always very romantic, and her approach always quite gestural so she was drawn to those painters whose work expressed those qualities – Samuel Palmer, Chagall and the German Expressionists were particular favourites. Although she painted the earlier works in front of her subject, the later abstract paintings were executed in her studio, always with music playing – often Bach or Wagner – and I think the music, and her response to it, infuses the work with a very special lyrical quality.

Why has abstract art been such a big movement, do you think?

I think ‘abstract art’ as a concept means different things to different artists. For Elsa, I think the move to abstraction must have been quite liberating. Although they are generally still very much linked to a particular place, in her abstract paintings she was able to focus solely on colour and light and space. Her pictures had always been expressive of emotions and this expressive element was further heightened once the figurative aspect was removed.

Elsa VaudreyRose, 1961

How did Elsa’s work change over the years? 

Elsa first studied needlework at the Glasgow School of Art and then moved into painting. Her work from the 1930s to the late 1950s can be understood as existing within an English watercolour tradition. From the 1960s onwards she produced abstract paintings, often on a larger scale, which to an extent were a response to the work of the American Abstract Expressionists. Yet there are common threads running throughout all her work, for instance her ability to use colour as a means of constructing form and space.

What is so unique about this artist/her work?

Elsa was a highly individual artist. She would never have identified herself with a movement – surrealism or abstraction, for example – and very much trod her own path. As such, she is one of those artists whose paintings don’t fit easily within the accepted narrative of twentieth century British art and I think it is important to highlight her work so as to enrich our understanding of exactly what was being produced and exhibited.

How did this project come about? Why did you decide to do it now?

The book is very much a group endeavour. For some time, Elsa’s son Lindsay Masters had been collecting and storing material relating to Elsa, realising the importance of documenting his mother’s life and work. When he became unwell, and thus unable to advance the project, Lindsay (who sadly passed away at the end of 2011) handed this material over to his half-sister Amanda, who worked with the archivist Hester McDonald to collate, sort and catalogue all the papers and photographs relating to Elsa that belonged to the family. Amanda and Hester also catalogued and photographed all of Elsa’s artwork for the first time. It became apparent that there was a rich story documented within this material which had never been told, and so Amanda and her brother Adam felt it was important to produce a book about their mother which would both celebrate her life and present a substantial body of her paintings to the public.

Do you know much about what Elsa was like as a person? We hear she was a bit of a ‘magpie’ when it came to interiors!

After speaking to several people who knew Elsa, I came away with the impression of her as a very loving, lively, joyful person. Obviously she was also incredibly creative. This imaginative streak comes through not only in her paintings but also in her homes which she renovated and customised (painting floorboards and furniture, in once case removing an entire floor to create a double-height space) so that they really became works of art in their own right. In these incredible spaces, she would display wonderful artworks, furniture and objects which she would track down from various sources. She loved to go “junking” – the family name for rooting in junk shops for all sorts of bargains and treasures. Although London provided her with many places to unearth hidden gems, she always retained fond memories of hunting around the shops in Bristol. Bath was appreciated for its beautiful architecture, but Elsa responded as much to the raw energy of Bristol, its liveliness and found enjoyed many junking adventures there!

You can purchase Lucy Inglis and Mel Gooding’s book on Elsa Vaudrey here: waterstones.com

Featued image: Circle of Friends, 1975